LONDON, March 24, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - Charles III arrives in France on Sunday for his first state visit as king, but the planned celebrations of historic cross-Channel relations face potential disruption from protests over unpopular pension reforms.
Officials on both sides are keeping a close eye on the waves of strikes and disruption across France that could cause last-minute changes to the carefully crafted three-day programme.
One concern is that protesters will use the occasion to publicise their fight against President Emmanuel Macron's bid to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64.
Striking trade unionists have even threatened to withhold red carpets for the visit but the body responsible insisted they would be rolled out as planned.
Charles, 74, and Queen Consort Camilla, 75, are due to tour Paris and Bordeaux before heading to Germany.
Buckingham Palace has said the visits "will celebrate Britain's relationship with France and Germany, marking our shared histories, culture and values".
"It will also provide an opportunity to look forwards and demonstrate the many ways the UK is working in partnership with France and Germany", including tackling climate change and in Ukraine.
- Entente -
The king's visit to France follows that of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and a "difficult period" in bilateral relations, said London's former ambassador to Paris, Peter Ricketts.
"The king can play his part in that, quite rightly, without any political overtones," he told AFP.
"I feel very optimistic that we have turned a page in the UK-French relationship.
"It got very bad in the years after Brexit, not helped by the fact that there was no trust in Paris, in Boris Johnson, who people didn't believe would keep his word."
Johnson's short-lived successor, Liz Truss, then failed to mend fences since the UK's European Union departure, saying the "jury's out" on whether Macron was a "friend or foe" of the UK.
But Ricketts added: "The arrival of... Rishi Sunak, who is much more compatible with President Macron, has really changed the picture."
- Green king -
In Paris, Charles and Camilla are scheduled to join Macron for a ceremony of remembrance and wreath laying at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Also pencilled in is an address at the Senate, while Camilla and French first lady Brigitte Macron will officially open the new Manet and Degas exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay.
The Macrons are due to host the royal couple at a state banquet before they head southwest to Bordeaux.
There, Charles will "witness first-hand the devastation caused by last summer's wildfires" and visit an organic vineyard, according to the programme announced in early March.
Charles, who became king last September after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was long mocked for his interest in the environment.
But his views -- from organic farming to sustainable living and tackling climate change -- have since become mainstream.
- Francophile -
The late queen, who was also a French-speaking Francophile, made five state visits to France and Charles will also be on familiar ground.
Since the 1970s he made 34 official visits to France as heir to the throne, and has met Macron several times, including at the COP26 climate change conference, which the UK hosted in 2021.
For Camilla, 75, the visit is her first overseas trip as queen consort.
When Macron visited London to commemorate the British capital's role supporting French resistance in World War II, Charles told him that like many Britons, the couple "have long had the greatest possible fondness for France and her people".
The king began learning French at the age of seven. Camilla spent six months in France learning the language and literature of the country in the 1960s.
But while her husband speaks fluent, if accented, French, she has admitted that hers is "rusty".
- Refocus -
The visit takes the focus away from blanket coverage of Charles's youngest son Prince Harry's autobiography and his Netflix docuseries with his wife, Meghan, both of which criticised royal life.
Charles, who was heir to the throne for 70 years, is less popular than his mother in opinion polls and has faced anti-monarchy protests since coming to the throne.
"I hope it (the visit) will be a moment of relaxation for both in their busy and difficult lives," said Ricketts, who was ambassador from 2012-16.
"A moment to think about the positives, the joy that British and French people find together and that that may be reflecting into the wider situation in the two countries."